Research indicates that a preference for sweet, high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods during the rapid growth period of young childhood may have given humans an evolutionary advantage, especially when calories were hard to hunt and gather. But in the modern world, sugar cravings don’t develop into an evolutionary advantage – they lead to weight gain and often to obesity.
...and from so many sources that it’s hard to determine which is a healthier selection. Just 100 years ago, the choices at the market were between cane sugar, sorghum, honey and maple syrup. Back then, an American ate less than two pounds a year of these sweeteners: Today the average American takes in between 140 and 160 pounds of sugar in a year! That’s about 22 teaspoons of sugar daily from sodas, snacks, cereal, pasta, bread, packaged foods – even processed meat. Yet the American Heart Association recommends no more than:
- 4 teaspoons daily for preschoolers
- 3 teaspoons daily for children 4 – 8 years old
- 5 – 8 teaspoons for pre-teens and teens
- 6 – 9 daily teaspoons for adults
Alarmingly, a recent study by the American Heart Association found that children between 1 and 3 years old were already typically consuming about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. And while most toddler moms aren’t feeding spoonfuls of sugar to their children, they unwittingly serve it through processed foods and snacks, baked goods and cereals.
The sugar warnings are in every nutrition and health article and on every doctor’s lips. So why do we still want it so badly? Because carbohydrates, including sugar, stimulate serotonin – the brain chemical that makes us feel good. And the sweet taste of sugar releases endorphins that calm and relax us.
The fact is, added sugar in any form simply isn’t healthy for your family, and there is added sugar in so many of today’s prepared foods, dairy products, cereals, convenience foods and restaurant items that it’s hard for anyone to know just how much they’re taking in every day. So the more you can control what’s in your pantry and on your family’s plates at home, the better.
First, the Glycemic Index (GI) Paradox
Fructose and glucose are the two simple sugars that result when complex sugars break down during digestion. Glucose is transported to the cells for energy. Unless it is burned, excess glucose is stored as fat. Fructose is also an energy source for cells, but it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels immediately. But that doesn’t mean it’s a food choice free-for-all. Fructose travels to the liver and the excess is converted to triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides can contribute to diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.
The Glycemic Index (GI) ranks foods based on how much your blood glucose level rises 2-3 hours after eating it. Eating foods with a Glycemic Index below 55 can help you naturally control your blood sugar. Which takes us back to sweetening agents. Let’s agree that refined table sugar from beets or sugar cane (with indexes of 65 - 80) are off the table. That includes powdered sugar and brown sugar. What now? Here is some information on the choices you have. Be sure to read the labels carefully on these products; many make strong claims of being calorie-free, but are still loaded with fructose, glucose and chemicals.
Use in Moderation...
A natural sweetener with lots of fructose, yet a GI of only 30. Use raw honey in moderation and only use raw, unprocessed honey from hives as close to where you live as possible.
Palm Sugar or Coconut Sugar
Although it has a Glycemic Index of 35, it is still loaded with sucrose and fructose. And we know that’s not a good thing for our livers.
Though it has a GI of 15 - 30, it also contains very high levels of concentrated, processed fructose and dextrose. Be careful when buying Agave Syrups as many have very little agave sap in them.
Molasses or Treacle
Contains the same calories as sugar per teaspoon, but has about half the sucrose – yet still a high GI of 55.
Deliciously natural, but a GI of 54.
Glucose, also known as Dextrose
A GI of 100. Top of the charts. In a bad way.
Often found in “low sugar” products, yet it has an off-the-charts Glycemic Index of 150! It’s highly processed from rice, corn or potato starch.
Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup
These are so highly processed they may also be an environmental danger. Corn syrup weighs in with a GI of 75 and its High Fructose cousin has a GI of 87.
Fructose/Fruit Sugar/Crystalline Fructose
Made from chemically extracted and reconstituted fruit sources, these sweeteners are all 100% fructose. While they have a GI of only 10 - 19, ingesting a high level of concentrated fructose converts to triglycerides, so use it in extreme moderation if at all.
Evaporated Cane Juice
Evaporated cane juices have a GI of 55 and are highly refined.
Turbinado, Muscovado, Demerara, Rapadura
These partially processed cane sugars have a GI of 65. They are not raw sugars, as they have been called, but are less refined than white table sugar.
With a GI of less than 1 and an extremely sweet flavor, this leaf extract has become the current darling of the sugarless crowd. Some brands and formulations have a bitter aftertaste, so try several until you find the one you like. Be careful to look for brands that don’t add higher GI products like maltodextrin from corn. Preferably choose organic.
Monkfruit or Lo Han Guo
Made from a Chinese fruit, the monkfruit extract can be hard to find. Although on its own it has a zero GI, some manufacturers mix it with high GI products such as sugar, molasses and dextrose (a form of glucose). Read the package and avoid those with added sugar products.
Processed sugar alcohol from the fibers of fruits and vegetables with a GI of 7. Yes, it’s sweet, has shown to prevent cavities – but it can also have a laxative effect.
Another processed sugar alcohol with a GI of zero.
Why is it so hard to stop eating sweet stuff? It could be you’re getting a “sugar high” from it. Sadly, you’re probably also getting a “sugar crash” that makes you want even more sweets. It’s a vicious cycle that could be speeding you down the road to illness and obesity.
It’s All In Your Head
Sugar is a carbohydrate. When we eat carbs, the chemical serotonin releases into our brains and makes us feel good. Then there’s that sweet taste of sugar: The flavor alone releases endorphins into your brain, making you feel relaxed, calm and happy. So it’s no wonder most people love sweets.
The problem isn’t with sugar or carbs on their own. The problem is with the volume of them in our diets. Most Americans – and almost all teens – get all sorts of hidden sugars in the foods you eat. Sugar is a common additive in many breads, yogurts, juices, sauces, dairy products and processed meats. So cutting back on sugar-filled sweets like candy, cakes and cookies can make a huge difference in the amount of unhealthy sugar you take in every day. But don’t worry, you can still feel happy after eating whole fruits, whole grains, vegetables and a more reasonable amount of sugar.
Curbing the Crave
Focus on deploying one or two strategies a week from the ideas below to reduce your sugar cravings:
Give into your craving, but just a tiny bit. By having just a few bites of what you crave – say one small cookie or a “fun size” candy bar – you’ll feel less deprived.
Don’t think artificial or zero-calorie products are the answer. They still aren’t training you to crave sugar any less. In the long run, you won’t beat the craving.
Take just a little of what you crave and mix it with something healthy. Try mixing chocolate chips or cacao nibs with unsalted nuts, or drizzle honey on an apple slice.
Some people are able to stop eating sweets completely, just because they want to. If you think you can do it, you’ll see less craving over a period of days. Soon you’ll be happy with a lot less sweet stuff in your life.
Take fruit to school instead of candy, and be sure there’s plenty of fruit at home for when the cravings kick in. Shop with your parents to be sure you all have healthier foods like nuts, dried and fresh fruit, seeds and higher-fiber, whole foods at hand.
Craving something sweet? Take a hike. Actually just a walk around the block will do just fine.
It’s OK to splurge now and then, but take a small bite of a finer food. For example, have a small dark-chocolate individually wrapped truffle and not a huge candy bar. Eat it slowly and enjoy every nibble.
Try to eat on a regular basis, every three to five hours, to keep your blood sugar stable. Reach for lean proteins, fiber-filled foods like fresh whole vegetables, grains and fruits, and low-fat dairy. Don’t overeat at each meal, either, and you’ll find you feel full – and not as attracted to sweets.